Court ruling clouds joint police ventures

Police officers crossing municipal boundaries to assist officers of a neighboring or nearby jurisdiction who are in need of help due to some emergency is nothing new.

That has been happening as long as people can remember.

Assistance doesn’t generally entail routine police patrols unless a community purchases police services from another.

Meanwhile, many municipalities allow their officers to participate in joint police operations such as DUI checkpoints or on drug task forces. The availability of manpower from a variety of locales for such operations helps protect communities and their residents.

But on May 31 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down a ruling that has put at least a temporary hold on municipal police officers conducting DUI checkpoints, not only here but no doubt across the state. The ruling also has triggered questions about municipal officers’ participation in drug task force work.

The issues spawned by the high court’s ruling don’t appear to be insurmountable; it seems only to be a matter of crafting the right formal agreements or guidelines governing work outside officers’ specific jurisdictions, if such agreements and guidelines don’t already exist.

It will take time to verify that existing rules and agreements comply with the court’s ruling and to take appropriate action in instances where they might not comply.

It’s easy to see that having the right rules in place to comply with all aspects of the court’s ruling will avert potential questions and legal challenges in the future.

The main important point for now is that new agreements and guidelines drawn up in the weeks ahead, or those that already are in place, serve as a single “blanket” not necessitating additional spur-of-the-moment approvals.

“Immediate” approvals probably would be impossible to obtain anyway, since state law requires that municipal decision-making take place at advertised public meetings.

The high court’s ruling was handed down in connection with a DUI case involving a woman who encountered a township police officer who was participating in a checkpoint in another township.

At the heart of the court case was the argument that, since the officer in question was out of his jurisdiction, any evidence emanating from the encounter with the woman that ultimately led to her conviction had to be suppressed.

The defense contended that there was a violation of the law governing police jurisdictions, and the court ruled that participation in such operations must be established through an ordinance, not merely through an agreement between department chiefs or municipal managers.

That has handed Blair County officials the task of determining whether the way this county’s DUI task force was established complies with the May 31 ruling, and a similar question hovers over the Blair County Drug Task Force.

Up to the end of last month, it was believed generally that the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act and the Municipal Police Jurisdiction Act were adequate guidelines and were being followed as written.

The May 31 court ruling has blurred that confidence.

Municipalities and their solicitors must work quickly to put the current questions and uncertainties to rest. The DUI and drug task forces must not be held back from continuing their important work.